Cigarette butts: a challenge

 Cigarette butts: a challenge

Here’s a challenge for placemaking: cigarette butts. Smoking is legal, and mostly smokers are sent outside to where their fumes won’t bother others. But that means cigarette butts are often ground out under the heel and left on the pavement.

Research shows that 65% of cigarette filters become litter (they are the 2nd most common item, after food wrappers). An estimated 766 571 metric tons of cigarette filters make their way into the environment every year. On its own, South Africa creates ±15bn cigarette butts a year. The  majority of these end up in the ocean, and this is why it matters:

  • The cellulose acetate fibre in the filter takes 10 to 15 years to fully degrade. And while butts are degrading, they break down into smaller, more digestible pieces, are mistaken for food, and are ingested by marine wildlife;
  • They are a chemical bomb. There is little difference between cigarette filters and the full cigarette as the main harmful effect to the environment is in the butt.

As long as cigarette smoking is a thing, safe cigarette filter disposal is going to be requirement – and we’ve been doing a terrible job of it so far.

There are several options:
Capturing them: Smokers don’t have the mindset to walk any distance to dispose of their butts – most in fact don’t think twice about grinding them out wherever they’re standing and walking away. UK research indicates 90% of smokers don’t consider this littering; contrarily, US research found that even when smokers know they’re littering, 75% of them still toss their butts. How do we change this mindset and behaviour?

Circular design requires producers of products to take responsible for environmentally friendly ways of using or disposing of the waste of that product. Since it’s not practicable to think about returning cigarette butts to British American Tobacco and the rest of the tobacco crew, the option is to design butts that don’t create problems – biodegradable filters or alternatives to filters, and chemicals that lose their toxicity quickly.